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Wolfgang Tillmans. Chemistry Squares. 1992. Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

“To look without fear is a good subversive tool, undermining taboos,” Wolfgang Tillmans has said. For more than three decades, the genre-defying German artist has endeavored to “[l]ook at things the way they are” through unbiased attention to the world around him. For Tillmans, fearless looking entails striking a balance between intention and chance—or, as he has put it, of “knowing when to let go, allowing fluidity, and avoiding anything being forced.” This idea is bound to Tillmans’s constant experimentation with new technologies to expand the possibilities of picture-making, creating images that challenge cultural assumptions and capture unforeseen connections between people, the natural world, and the cosmos. For this reason, his practice often blurs the line between figuration and abstraction. Likewise, the boundary between formal and social investigation seems to dissolve: Photographs made without a camera in a darkroom help us imagine new forms of community and solidarity as readily as fragmentary pictures of bodies in a nightclub.

The works below—all featured in Tillmans’s career retrospective, currently on view at MoMA—illustrate some possible interpretations of the exhibition’s aphoristic title, “To look without fear.”